My thesis project in architecture school was a lab building with high-tech glass and metal façades, artfully composed pipes and ventilation stacks, vibrant colors and natural light cascading through the lab and social spaces. We were taught to design human-scaled, livable spaces for people. Little did I know that as I progressed in my career I would be increasingly designing labs for refrigerators, analytical equipment and robots. Although simple in concept, moving labs and their equipment to a new location requires thoughtful planning and preparation, tempered with the understanding that many pieces used as a basis of design will become obsolete and get replaced by the time construction is completed.
Basic categories of scientific equipment
As a starting point in planning, it’s important to establish terms for equipment that are universally understood by everyone on the project. Generally this begins with defining whether each piece falls under the category of “fixed equipment” or “moveable equipment.” If, in theory, it would fall out of the building when the building is turned upside down, it’s considered movable. A glass wash machine, for example, is considered fixed, while an ultra-low temperature freezer is considered moveable. It is extremely important to understand the physical properties and clearances of fixed equipment early in the design process because of the connections to the building systems and modifications to the building structure that are often required. Whether equipment is fixed or moveable is often a factor in determining who will be procuring or installing each piece.
Fixed equipment: Attached to the building either structurally or through permanent connections to building systems. Is often procured by the building owner, the research organization or construction contractor. Fixed equipment is normally installed by a construction contractor with startups and calibration by the equipment vendor. Examples include: glass washers, fume hoods, environmental rooms, MRIs, autoclaves and air showers.
Moveable equipment: Can be relocated with minimal building modifications, but may require special building systems, environmental conditions or floor space. Moveable equipment is normally procured and installed by the business enterprise, R&D platform or principal investigator. Examples include: ductless biosafety cabinets, refrigerators, incubators, analytical equipment, sequencing equipment, centrifuges, confocal microscopes and electrophysiology rigs.
Individual equipment: Although a subset of moveable equipment, individual equipment usually has a very low impact on building systems and can essentially be used at any location by plugging into connections that are part of the standard bench utilities. Although it would be ideal to include all the individual equipment for a precise energy utilization profile of the lab, the benefit of recording basic “plug-and-play” equipment is often outweighed by the cost of the time it would take. Providing individual equipment is generally the responsibility of the platform or investigator. Examples include: small vortexes, water baths, pipettors, pH meters, stir plates and peristaltic pumps.
One of the most critical tasks is documenting the equipment that will be moved or ordered. The more detail the architects and engineers can have, the better. User manuals and installation guides offer a tremendous amount of information, but it isn’t necessarily relevant or complete without a manifest or purchase order that describes all of the accessories and features actually being purchased. For example, a confocal microscope can be configured with numerous combinations of lasers and air table sizes. Without the specific air table size and laser specifications anticipated, the architects can’t determine the room size and the engineers can’t determine the quantity and capacity of building utilities needed to support the equipment use (such as cooling air).
Equipment information is best organized in a clear, concise tabular format (Fig. 1). A condensed format allows more data to be viewed simultaneously to highlight pieces that can be grouped into core facilities or even eliminated. A well-designed spreadsheet identifies each piece of equipment with a unique alpha-numeric code, and documents the manufacturer and model number, the location of the existing equipment, its destination, who is responsible for furnishing and installing it, dimensions and clearances, weight, electrical and data requirements, alarming, heat loads, plumbing and waste requirements, gas and chemical requirements, ventilation requirements and special environmental parameters that need to be maintained, such as dimmable lights or critical temperature and humidity ranges. Some other considerations not relevant to the engineers, but useful to movers, include identifying hazardous materials associated with the equipment, regulatory compliance issues, calibration vendor contact information and special handling instructions.
Relocating existing equipment
When the time arrives for a lab to move, manuals for existing equipment are typically long gone. Engineers can design building systems more effectively to support equipment use when accurate information is provided. The absence of accurate and customized equipment information usually leads to the application of “rules of thumb” or ratios, potentially based on obsolete equipment and systems. According to Arup’s Julian Astbury, too many overly conservative design approaches are precursors to over-budget designs, over-sized system infrastructure and inevitable cost cutting or value engineering design iterations. It is far better to have an informed understanding of the equipment and apply a factor of safety for future changes.
Existing lab equipment inventories are precise, time intensive and ideally carried out by the architect and engineer together. The teams must measure each piece of equipment, diagram clearances and customizations, and document connections for power, data, alarm, gases, plumbing, cooling and exhaust (Fig. 2). Using a tablet to take pictures and annotate equipment configurations, special utility provisions and the equipment in the context of the process it supports can accelerate the inventory. Confidentiality agreements and photographic data retention policies may be necessary depending on the concerns of the client.
When designing labs that will utilize existing equipment, it’s also important to consider who will disconnect it at the existing location, how the equipment will be decommissioned and disinfected and how the old connections will be left. Many leases require spaces to be returned to their original condition. Costs such as these can add up quickly, and should be taken into account when a transition budget is established.
Large equipment or equipment with special infrastructure, shielding or structural needs should be considered as early lab plans are developed. Even typical lab equipment can be difficult to move if clear door openings cannot expand to at least 80-in tall and 48-in wide. A logistics plan should be determined during design to ensure that strategies and budgets are in place for receiving the equipment, moving the equipment to its working location, maintaining other lab operations and vendor assembly, testing and calibration. Both new and existing buildings can be challenging. MRI scanners, for example, can weigh as much as six tons. Because normal lab buildings are not designed for that much capacity, floors often require additional structural work at both the final location of the equipment and for the length of travel from the loading dock. Freight elevator size, elevator weight capacity, ceiling heights and door heights, along the moving path, should be verified to ensure that there are no traps on move in day. Past experiences in existing buildings in Boston and Cambridge have included removing exterior windows and louvers, cutting large holes in walls and floors and even removing parts of facades to facilitate successful moves. Sometimes the only way to get the equipment in is to build a new opening and bring it in by crane (Fig. 3). Because we were able to anticipate these needs through logistics planning that engaged qualified riggers and contractors early, we were able to move the equipment without costly surprises.
Planning for change
Because lab equipment is constantly improving, it’s highly probable that the equipment considered during planning will be obsolete by the time the lab is built. The best way to avoid problems on move day is to expect changes to happen and plan for a reasonable level of flexibility. Electrical system-related changes can often be minimized by locating strategically placed spare receptacles for generator power, using an adaptable wire way like the Starline Bus, or including spare electrical pathways in the design. Other systems like air, nitrogen, vacuum or carbon dioxide can be located on a grid of access nodes in consistent locations on each floor or distributed in a looped configuration on each floor so access to building systems are a short distance from locations where they are most likely needed. The actual arrangement of equipment and workflow is largely a user-driven factor, but it should be tempered with the knowledge that the infrastructure will outlast current needs and must support the scientific equipment of the future as well.
On the move
After equipment has been decontaminated and disconnected from house systems, it needs to be identified and prepared for the move. Many movers use a tag system to identify the owner and the final location on each piece. Some even attach individual place cards at each equipment location indicating the required utilities and a picture of the plug and receptacle so that the infrastructure can be verified before move day. This is a good way to ensure that last minute changes can be made before the actual equipment arrives. It is also good to have an electrician on site on move day to assist with any unanticipated plug configurations or power needs. Forrest Manning from Personal Movers also recommends purging old or unnecessary chemicals and equipment.
A mover with lab-specific experience can offer valuable insights on safely packing and handling equipment. For sensitive equipment like microscopes, it is best to have a vendor technician prepare and pack the equipment for transportation and unpack, assemble and calibrate the equipment when it is in the new facility. Incubators are easier to handle with the jackets drained. It is especially important to consider this option if they might be in the moving truck overnight in the winter and subject to freezing temperatures. Lab moves in an academic setting usually occur during the summer months, presenting less than ideal ambient temperatures for freezers and refrigerators. Samples are frequently kept inside freezers for short moves; but for longer trips, they are removed and packed in coolers with refrigerated ice packs or dry ice. Generator trucks are also available if samples must be kept in freezers for longer moves. Forrest notes that the materials in freezers are often irreplaceable: No level of insurance can replace a scientist’s life’s work. Lab moves are most often single-day and local in the Northeast, but most movers have climate-controlled warehouses if arrangements need to be made for storage. It is worthwhile to confirm that appropriate provisions for power and generator backup are provided in such facilities. It is also important to note that chemicals can only be transported by approved handlers, so a third party may be necessary depending on the qualifications of the mover.
Moving a lab is more like driving a boat than a car: What looks like a straight line trajectory will realistically require a series of course adjustments as unanticipated factors arise. A methodical process that breaks out equipment by type and risk, thoroughly documents the building utilities required for each piece, engages the right experts to evaluate the logistics of the full moving process and has enough float to allow for changes as they arise is the key to a successful move day.
Erik Karl Lustgarten, AIA, LEED AP is a Principal and research laboratory design consultant at Steffian Bradley Architects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Rossini from TMP Engineers, Julian Astbury from Arup, and Forrest Manning from Personal Movers contributed to this article.